Share success — My team knows that I want to help those around me succeed. The best leaders build a team so high, that they eventually don’t need the leader to help them fly by themselves.You would think that seeing thought leadership from my prior employers would bother me, since they are now my competitors. However, I feel the opposite. The people writing most of those pieces used to be my team members and we worked hard together to build a team and business unit that provides clients with valuable insights. The thought leadership they produce is outstanding and I’m extremely proud of them. They are flying high without me and that is the best legacy I could ask for.
I had the pleasure to interview with Tami Simon JD. Tami is a Senior Vice President and Global Corporate Consulting Business Leader for The Segal Group. She is a nationally recognized business leader in HR and employee benefits. In her role, Tami leads the cross-practice corporate consulting business, which brings insightful and innovative HR and employee benefit solutions to employers of all sizes including corporations, nonprofits, associations, institutions of higher education, among others. Tami has more than 20 years of experience in the employee benefits and HR consulting industry. She was named one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Employee Benefit Consulting by Employee Benefit Adviser, Tami is on the Boards of Directors for the American Benefits Council, Employee Benefit Research Institute, Emeriti Retirement Health Solutions and the Health Enhancement Research Organization. She is also on the Advisory Council of the ERISA Industry Committee, a former editor of the BNA Tax Management’s Compensation Planning Journal and a member of the American Bar Association. Tami was inducted as a Fellow to the elite American College of the Employee Benefits Counsel in 2018. Tami earned a JD, with distinction, from the University of Iowa College of Law, where she was an associate editor of the Law Review. She is also a graduate of the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign, with a BA in Political Science. She is a member of the Illinois Bar.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
ERISA. High Deductible Health Plans. Pension Schemes. VEBA Trusts. Rolls right off the tongue, right? No. I did not write my “What I want to be when I grow up” essay about my lofty dreams of someday pouring over regulations to help employers comply with employee benefit laws.
But, I do remember the day I decided helping others in this way, was going to be my path. I was a young attorney working for a large Chicago law firm. One Saturday spring morning, my doorbell rang and a friendly deliveryman with a toothy grin greeted me.
“Good morning, I have a package for Tami Simon!” he said enthusiastically.
“Thanks,” I replied reaching for the box “and my, you are in a great mood today.”
“Yes,” he explained, “My wife is expecting our first child soon and I just found out that my employer started offering paternity benefits. We are very happy about this.”
“I bet,” I replied “Congratulations!”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said returning to his delivery truck, almost skipping.
I closed the door and felt like I was floating for the rest of the day. Little did he know that I had recently finished helping his employer implement that very paternity leave benefit. I decided right then and there that I wanted to replicate that feeling as often as I could throughout my career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading the team at your current company?
I have been with my current firm for about a year and during my first several months, I traveled around the country to our various offices trying to meet, listen and learn from my new colleagues. During those visits, I found it interesting how many women made a point of telling me how happy they are to see a woman in a national leadership role. One particular woman was surprised to learn that I have three children at home. She asked me how I did it. “One day at a time,” I replied (while sipping my third cup of coffee of the day).
I hadn’t anticipated that it would matter so much to so many people in 2019. It does. It matters because I’m listening to them and they know I get it. Now there is another voice — a different kind of voice that sounds more like theirs — helping to make our company a more diverse and inclusive organization.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting in the business world? What lesson did you learned from that experience?
Early in my career, I received a request to join a call to help answer some questions our client raised about various HR issues. As the call began, I mentioned how happy I was to be on the phone with them because their company’s products had given my family years of enjoyment and comfort. Everyone on the call started to laugh, and the client replied, “While I appreciate the sentiment, Tami, I think you might be thinking of the sandal company with the same name. We work for the pharmaceutical company.” Lesson learned: Always do your homework and know exactly who you are about to speak with.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share an anecdote?
Objectivity. While many of our competitors claim to be objective, Segal is the only human resources and employee benefits consulting firm that can still claim this objectivity to clients with a “straight face.” For example, we do not push products, nor create partnerships with the vendors our clients ask us to assess. And we still believe that while consulting fads come and go, nothing replaces the value we bring to a client whose business objectives are central to any solution we offer.
Why have we been able to maintain what is so elusive to our peers? Perhaps because we are still privately held and employee owned, and thus not subject to the pressures of the quarterly earnings reports. Or perhaps it is because we treat the trust our clients bestow upon us with the greatest care and understand that to be a steward of a relationship is to, above all else, maintain integrity.
This cultural imperative has survived over 8 decades, even in the face of the fast buck and latest shiny consulting toy. To be objective is simply at the heart of Segal’s identity.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Absolutely! Just read the headlines: “Specialty drug costs skyrocket” “Student loans reach $1Trillion” “Workers strike for better benefits” “Cyber security risks increase.” “Long term care insurance not delivering on promises.” We are in one of the most exciting and important times of the HR and employee benefit consulting industry. Workforce and enterprise challenges and opportunities facing employers today are vast. Our priority is to be an extension of our clients’ business, and partner with them to solve problems and leverage opportunities.
It’s easy to point to our solutions and show how we help people, because that is precisely our business: Trusted advice that improves lives. I call this the kitchen table rule. The solutions we offer — to help employers reach their business goals and support their peoples’ health and financial security — are the things people talk about with their loved ones around kitchen tables. And I am grateful to work in a job where our services make it possible for people to take time off to have babies, save for retirement, address their healthcare needs, and so on….
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Make every member of your team understand her/his purpose and empower them to achieve it.
Teams are the most successful when every member, at all levels, understands why s/he matters to the success of the project, division, client, firm, etc. and has been empowered to succeed.
Workforce studies have shown that being part of something bigger than yourself and being valued for the role you play results in higher job fulfillment and productivity. There are plenty of clichés that address this: “we are all in this together,” “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” “every person matters.” And yet, we’ve all seen people who are clearly going through the motions; who wake up every day to a job, rather than a calling, career, passion, or mission.
The best leaders understand that these are not just clichés. I once worked with a hospital client that referred to their janitorial staff as Health & Safety Professionals (HSPs). If you asked a member of the HSP team, they would explain that their job was to make sure all patients and visitors were safe while in the hospital and left the hospital healthier than they came in. And they were empowered to identify and address any issues that may impact that health and safety (obviously, within reason). Their mission was no less important than surgeons, because they fully understood their role in preventing infections and injury.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
This question relates to three very important, but different, topics: Managing, leading, and how to do them each “best.”
Managing vs. Leading. First, leading isn’t the same as managing. This explains why they are different words and effective organizations understand that they require entirely different skills. People that confuse these two competencies have more performance management challenges. Businesses that take the time to clearly identify and communicate management and leadership expectations — and the respective responsibilities of each — have a greater chance of success.
Great managing. Despite the hundreds of best-selling books offering the perfect recipes for managing teams, in my opinion, it boils down to two simple ingredients: (1) Know your people, and (2) Effectively apply that knowledge to achieve the team’s collective business purpose. The best managers I’ve been fortunate enough to observe understand that dynamic. They manage to individuals’ strengths, transparently develop their staff when needed, and adjust to quickly evolving business needs with agility.
Great leading. Finally, every leader (regardless of gender) needs to identify her own authentic leadership style. “How” she leads says as much about her as a person as it does about her as a professional. For an organization to have the healthiest culture, that “how” needs to compliment the “who” she is leading. While most experienced leaders can modestly adjust the way they approach a new team, I believe a person’s authentic leadership style is hard to change drastically because her personality is at the core of that style. Not unlike finding the right life partner, the magic happens when an authentic, self-aware leader is partnered with a team who positively responds her style. That chemistry is impossible to fake.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
“Don’t be afraid to be great.” That was advice that I got from my first boss after graduating from law school and the most important mentors in my career have articulated some version of that same message to me.
I’ve faced criticism that leading with a vision I believe in, meaningful accountability, high expectations, and a direct communication style can be too “forceful,” ”overwhelming,” or ”emotional.” And while I’ve lost count of the number of books written describing how those very terms are rarely used to describe men, you may not find it ironic that — as far as I know — at no time did those descriptions originate from a member of my team (even in anonymous 360 reviews). The comments usually came from peers. And to their credit, my best mentors have often explained that the feedback was more a reflection of the person giving it rather than me.
So why did my mentors bother mentioning these unfair criticisms in the first place? Because they believe (and I agree) that acknowledging these stereotypes is crucial to moving beyond them. It is never easy to hear — especially when you are working hard to be collaborative, transparent about your intentions, and interested in the success of all those around you. But changing the misconceptions of how a successful female leader “should” lead needs to be actively managed by everyone.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I feel successful because I am raising three terrific kids who I admire and respect as individuals and who I am confident will make the world a better place because they are in it. That is goodness. I’m also successful because I am happily married to the love of my life and my career has enabled him to follow his calling as a civil servant. That is also goodness.
At work, I hope that my “success” (I prefer to call it my job) has helped make it a little easier for others to feel confident in who they are and internalize that their contributions are highly valued.
In a broader sense, I chose HR and employee benefits (or rather, it chose me) because I deeply believe that everyone needs to feel needed and valued to do their best work. The significance of feeling needed and valued by one’s manager, boss, supervisor, colleagues, clients, patients, customers and/or employer is something that is difficult to quantify. It often affects our very self-worth. To the extent I’ve been able to help employers recognize this need and design their business strategies, employee programs, and communications with this essential human need in mind, employees be more productive.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? Please share a story or example for each one.
- Become the best at something — Be the “go to” person for something valued by your employer or clients. This helps create your professional brand and helps make you irreplaceable.
- Share success — My team knows that I want to help those around me succeed. The best leaders build a team so high, that they eventually don’t need the leader to help them fly by themselves.You would think that seeing thought leadership from my prior employers would bother me, since they are now my competitors. However, I feel the opposite. The people writing most of those pieces used to be my team members and we worked hard together to build a team and business unit that provides clients with valuable insights. The thought leadership they produce is outstanding and I’m extremely proud of them. They are flying high without me and that is the best legacy I could ask for.
- Stuff happens — Sometimes, you’re going to make mistakes, get bad news, deal with difficult personalities, face a recession, lose an election, get fired, and so on. The real skill is how you handle it.I was once in a situation where I found out a couple of colleagues had been intentionally dishonest with me for their personal gain. I could have easily made a scene or escalated the situation. After all, I caught them red-handed and there were witnesses. When I first found out what they had done, I had to take a long walk to calm down. Once those emotions subsided, I focused on the end goal. I wanted to behave in such a way that I would eventually win over my colleagues respect so they would never try something like that again. I raised my concerns, described what I believed would be the most constructive path forward to make us all successful, and then put in place some security measures to avoid a recurrence. I’m not naïve. I know I can’t change other people’s behavior. But I can make it clear that I have higher standards and behave with integrity.
- Make sleep a priority — It’s a miracle drug. You’ll be better at everything if you take care of your body and give it the rest it needs.
- Choose positivity — Positive energy attracts more positive energy, and the opposite is also true. Life is much easier — and a lot more fun — when you approach it with the glass half full.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Educating all people on earth. Education is the key to fighting racism and sexism, empowering the disempowered, and helping all people meet their greatest potential.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? How was that relevant to you in your life?
My mom used to always say to my sister and me: “Dime con quien andas y te digo quien eres” which loosely translates to “tell me who you hang out with and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Good advice for teens and young adults, but how does that translate to adults? My application: If you want to excel in what you do, try to be with people who do it with excellence. I simply adore surrounding myself with people whom I respect and can learn from. When I was first practicing law, I sought out outstanding subject matter experts. When I first became a mom, I surrounded myself with amazing working mothers. And now, I find myself giving the same advice to young professionals and my own kids.
Another life lesson quote I believe in is “Mom is always right.”
We are blessed that some big names read this column. Is there a person in the U.S. or in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Barbra Streisand. Setting aside the fact that Barbra’s voice is a gift from the heavens, what has always impressed me about Barbra is her uncompromising passion. She is not only an accomplished professional, but she has retained her sense of self, humor, style and social responsibility. She also puts her money where her mouth is, and uses her fame, fortune and influence to support causes she deeply believes in.